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Sometimes the tablet-gods smile on us. Over the last hundred years, scholars have worked to establish when the properties known as bow, horse, and chariot estates first appeared in Mesopotamia. Earlier writers often saw them as examples of Iranian feudalism, imposed on Babylonia by the Medes or Persians, but there were a few examples under Nabonidus. Then in 1998 Michael Jursa reread a text from Uruk from the 35th year of Nebuchadnezzar with the following lines:

(15) 1 GUR 2 PI ŠE.NUMUN E2 GIŠ.BAN ša2 {m}Dan-/e-<>\-a
ša2 {m}{d}U.GUR-da-a-nu a-na er-ru-šu-tu2
i-ir-ši maš-ka-a-nu ša2 {m}Gi-mil-lu
a-di {m}G-mil-lu ŠE.NUMUN i-šal-lim

Vocabulary
rašû i/i “to get, acquire”
erušutu > erēşu “to seed
maškanu “security, pledge”

1 kur 2 pi of seed (ie. field which is sown with 7 bushels of barley), the bow estate of Dannēa, which Nergal-dān acquired to sow, is pledged to Gimillu, until Gimillu received the barley.

Now, Nergal-dān and Gimillu are obscure figures (although one shared a name with a famous rogue a hundred years later). But this shows us two things. First, bow estates already existed at Uruk under Nebuchadnezzar and had the same name which they had in Persian times. Therefore they were not a foreign introduction, but an example of the very common Mesopotamian practice of giving soldiers and officials land and water rights instead of a salary. And second, already under Nebuchadnezzar tenants were using these properties as collateral for loans. Nergal-dān had borrowed a large amount of barley from Gimillu, and until he repaid it, Gimill had the right to use his bow estate. Just like the debtor’s prison, this may not have been a good way to ensure that debtors repaid their debts, but it was an excellent way for those who already had much land to collect even more. So a hundred and fifty years later, when the descendants of Murašû took loans against bow estates, and demanded the right to use the land if their debtors failed to pay promptly, they were using an old legal device.

1 kur of land is not very much, even in Mesopotamia with its double-digit yields on irrigated land (the traditional rule of thumb was that 1 kur of barley was enough to feed an ordinary family for a month). One bow estate in the Persian period seems to have contained ten kur (Stolper, Entrepreneurs and Empire, p. 26 n. 100). So it is possible that Nergal-dān already held a fraction of a full estate. A very popular interpretation sees the bow estates as in decline under the later Achaemenids, because in an archive from Darius II and Artaxerxes II many holders were forced to sign over fractions of a bow estate as collateral for loans, but as a wise French scholar said, this golden age moves further away the harder we search for it.

Further Reading: Michael Jursa, “Bogenland schon under Nebukadnezar II,” Nabu 1998.124 http://sepoa.fr/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/1998-4.pdf For earlier interpretations of the bow estates, see the works of Guillaume Cardascia and Geo Widengren.